Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star is finally getting the spotlight, a century after her heyday.
Gemma Chan and producer Nina Yang Bongiovi are teaming with Working Title Films to develop a biopic of Anna May Wong, the golden age icon whose career brought her international recognition even as she continued to face opportunity limitations in the industry and other forms of prejudice and discrimination.
The Eternals and Crazy Rich Asians star (whose 2021 Met Gala look, seen above, was an homage to Wong) will portray the legend and also executive produce. Yang Bongiovi, whose Significant Productions was most recently behind Passing, will produce alongside Working Title co-chairs Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. Working Title’s recent releases include Joe Wright’s period romance Cyrano starring Peter Dinklage and Channel 4 and Peacock’s Muslim punk-rock series We Are Lady Parts.
“Anna May Wong was a trailblazer, an icon and a woman ahead of her time,” said Chan in a statement. “Her talent and her exploration of her art both in and outside of the U.S. was groundbreaking — and the challenges and prejudice she faced in the early 20th century as an actress speak directly to the conversations and the world we are navigating today.”
David Henry Hwang, the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony (in 1988 for M. Butterfly), is penning the screenplay, adapted from Graham Russell Gao Hodges’ 2012 biography, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Wong’s niece Anna Wong is serving as a consultant on the film.
“I’m delighted that I’ll get to build on my aunt’s legacy with Gemma and Nina, who are Asian leaders in the forefront of storytelling,” Anna Wong said in a statement. “Anna May Wong’s presence in American and worldwide cinema was the first of its kind, and her representation continues to resonate today. She is the embodiment of inspiration for artists of color.”
Anna May Wong was born in Los Angeles in 1905 and appeared in 60 films between 1919 and 1960. Her career began in the silent era (including 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad starring Douglas Fairbanks and 1929’s Piccadilly) and continued as films began to adopt sound, such as 1932’s Shanghai Express, in which she starred alongside Marlene Dietrich. Despite her filmography and status as a fashion icon, MGM refused to consider her for the female lead of its 1937 adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, about a Chinese family. O-Lan instead was played by white German actress Luise Rainer, who won the Academy Award for best actress for the role.
When Hollywood restricted her options, Wong went abroad, performing onstage in Europe and dedicating herself to documenting Chinese stories during World War II. She returned to the screen in 1951 to star in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first American television series to feature an Asian American lead, and continued to act until her sudden death of a heart attack in 1961, at the age of 56.
Wong’s legacy has been memorialized in recent years. In 2020, Michelle Krusiec (Saving Face) portrayed the pioneer in Ryan Murphy’s alternate history drama Hollywood on Netflix, and last year the U.S. Mint announced that Wong will be featured in its American Women quarters series, which will make her the first Asian American to appear on U.S. currency. The Working Title biopic is slated to be the cinema icon’s biggest cultural tribute yet.
Chan is represented by M88, the U.K.’s Independent and WME. Hwang is repped by CAA and Schreck Rose.
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Gemma Chan, Nina Yang Bongiovi Developing Anna May Wong Biopic With Working Title Films (Exclusive)